Biography

Kierkegaard: A Single Life

As we were driving down the highway recently as a family, I informed my college-age sons that a recent album (Reflektor) released by one of their favorite bands (Arcade Fire) was inspired by Soren Kierkegaard’s work, The Present Age. In his interview with Rolling Stone, band front man Win Butler speaks of how relevant Kierkegaard’s writing is today, “It sounds like he’s talking about modern times…He’s talking about the press and alienation, and you kind of read it and you’re like, “Dude, you have no idea how insane it’s gonna get.”  This quote comes from Stephen Backhouse’s new biography of the Danish Christian/existentialist/philosopher entitled Kierkegaard: A Single Life.(p. 205).

I had to read Kierkegaard as a freshman in college in my Western Civilization class (I think it was Fear and Trembling-but it’s been 36 years), and while I found some of his ideas compelling, most of it went over my head.  But over the past few decades, I’ve come across his writings in various places, perhaps most recently in Metaxas’ biography of Bonhoeffer (see my blog and Backhouse’ discussion, p. 197), so when I saw this new biography from Zondervan, I happy picked it up.

I was not disappointed.  Backhouse is a Kierkegaardian scholar who can write for a more popular, non-specialist audience, moving easily between anecdotes of a man who life was largely tragic and encapsulations of his profound writings and philosophy.

While it took awhile for his writings to gain traction in broader circles, his impact goes way beyond Arcade Fire and Dietrich Bonhoeffer to include Franz Kafka, Karl Barth, Charles Williams (friend of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Dorothy Sayers), Thomas Merton, Albert Camus, Richard Wright, FDR, and Martin Luther King Jr (although the often-cited link between Kierkegaard and Frederick Nietzsche seems rather tenuous).  Backhouse’s final chapter detailing these influences makes fascinating reading.

Soren Kierkegaard’s goal to “reintroduce Christianity into Christendom” seem tragically appropriate today.  Here’s a journal entry, “A modern clergyman [is] an active, adroit, quick person who knows how to introduce a little Christianity very mildly, attractively, and in beautiful language, etc.–but as mildly as possible.  In the New Testament Christianity is the deepest wound that can be dealt to a man, designed to collide with everything on the most appalling scale–and now the clergyman is perfectly trained to introduce Christianity in such a way that it means nothing…How disgusting!” (p. 171-172).

Kierkegaard’s views profoundly challenge me as a seminary professor in my occupation of training “clergymen.”  God help us reintroduce Christianity into Christendom.

Amazing Grace by Eric Metaxas

In 2007 the world celebrated the 200th anniversary of Britain’s historic decision to abolish the slave trade.  While many people toiled for decades to make this happen, the individual perhaps most responsible was William Wilberforce, the British MP who tirelessly brought the bill before the House of Commons over the course of 18 years.  Amazing Grace is the story of Wilberforce’s campaign, written by Eric Metaxas (2007- yes, I like to review books a few years after they come out, not when everyone else is reviewing them.).  The film Amazing Grace (which opened in the US in 2007) tells the same story.  (Slavery as an institution was not abolished in the British colonies until 1833; over 30 years before it was abolished in the US).

Wilberforce went to Cambridge (I don’t hold it against him) shortly after turning 17, became a Member of Parliament at age 21, and at 24 was best friend to the youngest British Prime Minister in history, William Pitt (the younger), also 24.  What were they thinking to allow a 24 year-old run the country?  Good point, but people didn’t live as long back then, so 24, was like 28 in our years.  So, I guess 28 was old enough to run a country nation like the UK.

Wilberforce’s story is an amazing one of persistence, he had health problems, received death threats, major disappointments (one year the abolition bill didn’t pass because potential votes were absent at the opera).

At risk of sounding like Goldilocks, of the three Metaxas’s books that I’ve read, I enjoyed Bonhoeffer but at over 600 pages at times I found it a bit long (too hot?), Seven Men, also engaging, but with only 20 or so pages on each guy, not in-depth enough (too cold?), but since in Amazing Grace he’s able to tell Wilberforce’s story in less than 300 pages, I found it just right.  Metaxas does a great job of telling the story, giving historical insights and entertaining along the way (I now believe that he wrote for Veggie Tales). I highly recommend it.

Read it before you watch it.  If you haven’t already.

Seven Men by Eric Metaxas

For those of you who were interested in Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas but were scared of the 624 pages, you should pick up a copy of Seven Men and the Secret of their Greatness (April, 2013), which is only about 200 pages.

I read the Bonhoeffer book, and enjoyed it immensely, but it would have been a better book without about 150 pages (don’t ask me which 150 pages to cut, though).

In Seven Men Metaxas tells the story of, yes, you guessed it… seven men.  The 624 pages of Bonhoeffer is condensed into a chapter of 24 pages, alongside similarly sized chapters telling the stories of George Washington, William Wilberforce, Eric Liddell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jackie Robinson, Pope John Paul II and Charles Colson.  

Before going any further, I must say I’ve loved reading Seven Men and will recommend it to the rest of my family, particularly my two teenage sons.

While it is not obvious from the title, Metaxas focuses on the faith of these individuals, which include two athletes (Liddell, Robinson), three politicians (Washington, Wilberforce and Colson) and two professional Christians (Bonhoeffer, JPII).  I would have liked to know how he decided upon these seven–why these seven?

And while I might be tempted to critique him for not including great Christian men from all over the globe, I appreciate the fact that he didn’t just include 7 Americans.  He chose:
3 Americans (Washington, Robinson and Colson),
2 English (Wilberforce, Liddell),
1 German (Bonhoeffer) and
1 Pole (JPII).

Here are some of the best bits (no spoilers yet, although see below):

1) Washington: The Father of our nation had no sons of his own.  He could have made the US into a monarchy with him as king.  Shortly before he died he rewrote his will to free all his slaves.

2) Wilberforce: Metaxas  wrote Amazing Grace the book because he was invited to do so by a publisher so that it would coincide with the film, Amazing Grace, that was already in the works.  Wilberforce memorized Psalm 119 (and I can’t even finish writing my blogs on the chapter).

3) Liddell: He discovered that the 100 meter trials would be on Sunday, not on the boat (as in “Chariots of Fire”), but the previous fall.  The story of him in the internment camp in China at the end of WWII was deeply moving.  He was scheduled to be freed in a prisoner swap shortly before the war ended, but he gave his place up to a pregnant woman.

4) Bonhoeffer: He was willing to learn from people he disagreed with, like liberal academics like Adolf von Harnack at Berlin University.  An African American from Alabama (Frank Fisher) had a deep impact on him while he was in New York and Fisher brought Robinson him to Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.  While in NY, he attended there every Sunday.

5) Robinson: His faith was crucial to his ability to not respond violent to horrific racism.  Branch Rickey (GM of the Brooklyn Dodgers) guided Robinson to the Sermon on the Mount to help him deal with racism (“turn the other cheek”).

6) Pope John Paul II: Before JPII, it had been 456 years since a non-Italian was chosen as Pope (Adrian VI, a Dutchman).  I love that Metaxis, a Protestant, chose a Catholic in this list.  I’m sure he’ll take flack for that decision.  I applaud it.

7) Colson: He single-handedly took a creative image of 2nd birth from Jesus’ interaction with Nicodemus (John 3:3) and transformed it into a catchy book title (Born Again), which then became a cliche in Christian culture.  His conversation was surprisingly emotional for an ex-Marine / Nixonian Watergate hatchetman.  Metaxis and Colson had a close personal relationship.

An unexpected perk, the hardback version stayed open nicely while I was riding on my exercise bike.

Spoiler alert: All seven have now died.

So, who are your top seven?